- Peter Blackstock American-Statesman Staff
Jimmy LaFave, who moved to Austin in the mid-1980s and became one of the city’s most prominent singer-songwriters of the past several decades, died Sunday night after a yearlong battle with an aggressive form of cancer. He was 61.
Jesse LaFave, a nephew, confirmed Monday that Jimmy died at home in the company of family and loved ones about 9 p.m.
“It was almost like something out of a movie, but a really sad movie where you already knew how it was going to end,” he said. “But he wanted to pass away at his house, and that’s exactly what he did.”
Born July 12, 1955, in Wills Point, about an hour east of Dallas, LaFave moved with his family to rural Payne County in Oklahoma as a youth and attended Donart High School in nearby Stillwater, Okla. A photo from 1973 shows a teenage LaFave performing in the school’s talent show. His childhood acoustic guitar is featured in a display at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Okla.
He played regularly in Stillwater nightclubs after high school and, along with other rising Oklahoma songwriters of the era such as Bob Childers and Terry Buffalo Ware, helped establish what became known as red-dirt music, a rootsy mix of country, folk, blues and rock. He recorded his first two albums during that time, though they received little notice beyond his home region.
After LaFave moved to Austin, he gradually rose to the fore of the city’s music scene. His 1988 tape “Highway Angels … Full Moon Rain” was recognized as the best cassette release at that year’s Austin Music Awards. Soon he began hosting a weekly open mic at Chicago House, a popular Sixth Street acoustic haven in the 1990s. Early on, he began wearing the vintage leather driving cap that became a nearly omnipresent part of his outfit onstage.
LaFave signed with Rounder Records affiliate Bohemia Beat for 1992’s “Austin Skyline” and recorded five more albums for the label over the next 10 years, elevating his music to national and international recognition. After 1995’s “Buffalo Return to the Plains,” he was featured on “Austin City Limits” as part of the storied television program’s 21st season.
After two albums with renowned folk label Red House Records in the mid-2000s, LaFave co-founded Music Road Records with Kelcy Warren, CEO of Dallas gas and oil company Energy Transfer Partners, and Fred Remmert, then an engineer at Cedar Creek recording studio in South Austin. Music Road issued the next half-dozen LaFave albums, as well as records by a handful of other mostly local artists.
LaFave wrote and recorded dozens of his own songs, including the romantic ballad “Never Is a Moment,” a minor hit from his 2001 album “Texoma.” He also became renowned for his interpretations of works by other artists; one of his most viewed songs on YouTube is “Walk Away Renee,” a cover of the Left Banke’s 1960s pop classic.
He gravitated especially toward songwriters who had greatly inspired him, including Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne. In an April concert at Threadgill’s just after he’d gone public with the news of his terminal condition, he included in his set Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” Browne’s “Before the Deluge” and Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
That public revelation followed a year of dealing privately with a malignant sarcoma that began with a lump in his chest in early 2016. LaFave sought treatment at major cancer centers in Houston and New York, undergoing surgery for the initial tumor and consenting to some radiation treatment. But he ultimately decided against chemotherapy or further operations.
“Jimmy’s very adept at living in the moment, being in the moment,” guitarist John Inmon, a longtime friend, told writer Brad Buchholz recently. “Jimmy said, ‘If I’ve only got X number of months left, I’m not going to spend it throwing up, you know.’ ”
Instead, he continued to perform, playing shows frequently in Austin and around the region. He also undertook a significant studio project, recording dozens of tunes at Cedar Creek with the help of many musician friends, including younger artists who’ve often cited LaFave as an inspiration for their careers. Those recordings probably will be finished and released posthumously.
“He had so much more music and other things he could have done,” said his nephew Jesse, an Austin musician who helps run Cedar Creek. “I’ve been asking myself the last few weeks: ‘Who’s going to replace him? Who’s going to do what he does?’ That’s the part that I’m most upset about, is that what he does can’t be replaced.”
LaFave’s last major touring jaunt came in April, when he returned to the Stillwater area for a performance attended by many longtime friends and family members. He also played in Tulsa, closing a Woody Guthrie festival. A few days earlier, he’d been selected for entry into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. His formal induction will be June 10 at a festival in Muskogee.
A major tribute show for LaFave was held at the Paramount Theatre on Thursday. The audience at the sold-out event heard Austin artists, including Eliza Gilkyson, Slaid Cleaves and Ruthie Foster, plus some from out of state, including Nashville’s Gretchen Peters, Boston’s Ellis Paul and Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter Sarah Lee Guthrie, primarily playing songs that LaFave wrote or were part of his repertoire. LaFave closed the show by leading the crowd in a sing-along of “Goodnight Irene.”
“I realized, once that moment happened at the end, that he wanted to be there to express his love and gratitude to everyone,” said musician Christine Albert, who helped organize the show. “As much as being able to hear the music and to receive our love, I think it was more about giving it back.
“As soon as it was over, I felt, ‘OK, he can let go now.’ ”
Survivors include his son, Jackson LaFave, 15, and his former wife, Barbara Fox, Jackson’s mother, both of Austin; his father, G.G. “Frenchy” LaFave, of Kingfisher, Okla.; siblings Gary LaFave, Robert LaFave and Connie LaFave Gallupe of Oklahoma, and LeeAnn LaFave Swanson of Colorado; and several nieces and nephews, including Jesse LaFave. Jimmy LaFave was preceded in death by his beloved mother, Betty (Robbins) LaFave.